There are really rather too many good texts on building honey bees for the flow, but the topic of getting bees to their maximum strength and keeping them that way without swarming is another matter. In this month’s Bee Buzz Box we peruse the May 1952 edition of the American Bee Journali. This journal issue summarises almost all that there is to be known about swarm prevention.
We first covered swarming in honey bees in a two-part Bee Buzz Box series way back in September and October 2016ii and followed that up with a simple two part series on swarm control in August and September 2018iii. We went on to discuss the more general aspects of building bees for the honey flow in August and September 2019iv.
Swarm control – controlling what bees do naturally – is an eternal quest. This month’s Bee Buzz Box tells you how eight savvy swarm control practitionersv saw remedies to the problem. In case you get stuck looking for the online version of the May 1952 issue 92(5) of the American Bee Journal, I’ve also attached a download in pdf format as:
Professor Mykola H. Haydak from Minnesota: The causes of swarming
Mykola Haydak starts his foray into control of swarming with a clear-sighted observation:
Swarming is a natural phenomenon in the life of bees.
Hydak follows with a more nuanced explanation of what happens during swarm preparations. During the development of the hive in spring, and where the colony is crowded, there is an increasing tendency of bees greater that 1-3 days old to be displaced:
In a strong colony, sooner or later, there will be a disproportion between the number of the displaced nurse bees and the space available for egg deposition…
As soon as the queen is around the swarm cells the bees do not bother her. She approaches the swarm cups and deposits eggs in them. As soon as the queen larvae appear the displaced nurse bees can lavishly supply them with food. At the same time the bees stop feeding the queen. The latter feeds herself on honey, deposits less eggs and the size of her abdomen diminishes.
He goes on to describe the loss on the control of the queen over her progeny and the eventual swarm preparations and the subsequent absconding by unemployed bees. The trick, Hydak observes, is to resolve the supply and demand condition getting out of kilter, that is to keep all the bees well employed. Other authors to this series provide the actual solutions.
Henry A. Schaefer: Swarm prevention
Henry Schaefer was the 1953 US president of the National Beekeepers Federationvi. Schaefer presents an unconventional approach to swarm control, one that I, for one, had never encountered:
A young queen mated before the nectar flow from the hive she later heads, plus ventilation and plenty of super room [won’t swarm].
Schaefer outlined how he raised queens in his hives without resorting to finding the old queen. He achieved both swarm prevention and requeening in one stroke of the pen. In reading Miller’s famous book Fifty Years amongst the Bees he records amusingly:
It was not long before I was very interested in what Dr Miller had to write about swarm prevention. Here it is: ‘A colony disposed to swarm might be prevented from doing so by blowing it up with dynamite’. But, he says, ‘that would be unprofitable’. He was seeking profitable swarm prevention.
E.S. Miller: Swarm control with extracted honey
Miller provides a fairly conventional approach to swarm control starting with a remarkable achievement:
In the production of extracted honey, swarming can be prevented. It has been proved by more than six years without a swarm in a yard averaging about 50 colonies. In fact, the bees seldom started any queen cells. I believe this record can be duplicated by anyone who has a good strain of Italians and who will use the method which I will attempt to outline.
He goes on to describe how he does this:
Confine the queen to the lower story. If you have trouble finding her just shake off bees and queen and let them run in under the queen excluder. Next, use as a second story a deep super of drawn combs, which is to be left in place during the next twelve months as a food chamber. Then place on top of this what was previously the second story…
He then conducts a simple Demaree:
Then about June 1 [our 1st of December or quite a lot earlier given local ACT region conditions] or whenever the brood chamber becomes crowded replace the brood with drawn combs, moving to the top or fourth story all brood except one comb, which is left below so that the bees will not desert the queen.
He signals a few other essentials, notably the use of young queens but his system is essentially foolproof and backed by years of experience.
In a separate articlevii Miller lists all the measures one should take to prevent of minimise swarming:
1. queens should be bred only from the best non-swarming stock…;
2. failing queens, and all queens over two years old, should be replaced, otherwise attempts at supersedure may tend to induce swarming;
3. defective combs… should be discarded…;
4. suitable ventilation should be provided with an entrance to the hive at least 7/8 inch deep by the full width of the hive;
5. sufficient room [should be provided] for the expansion of brood and for storage of honey…; and
6. …the excess of young bees and the emerging brood from the combs to be occupied by the queen [should be removed]…
Carl E. Killion and Eugene Killion: Swarm control and queen rearing in comb honey
These famous father and son producers of comb honeyviii describe a procedure that almost fully controls swarming in crowded brood boxes, the crowding being essential to the successful drawing out of comb and filling of small honeycomb sections. They surmise that the provision of a young queen early in the season is not sufficient to prevent swarming under their crowded brood nest conditions instead observing:
We did find that any colony requeened with a ripe cell, in the swarming period, after being queenless for eight days, did not swarm nor swarm with a young queen reared and given instead of the cell, after the honey flow was underway.
While most beekeepers do not operate bees the way the Killion’s did – few produce section comb honey for sale these days. It has always been clear to me that their technique would greatly facilitate the operation of the new-fangled flow hive. If you read Eugene Killion’s famous book Honey in the Comb you will discover that they offset the old queen – in their case not so old girl – in a separate colony to build sufficient stores to provision the parent colony at the end of the season. After all you want the bees to fill sections – or flow combs – not being diverted into the task of also provisioning the parent hive bees for a far distant overwintering.
However the Killions do provide very sage advice about the many who claim to have all solutions to controlling swarming:
There are many methods of swarm control. We have tried almost everything recommended in the last thirty years. Most of these sound so very convincing on paper, but if some were left on paper and never tried out in the bee yard, the bees and beekeeper both would benefit.
I. Lyle Newman: Swarm control with nucleus system
Lyle Newman first reiterates the conventional swarm control measures, large brood nests with ample worker and minimal drone comb and a prolific young queen. He then goes onto describe – much as John Holzberlein did – a technique of introducing a young queen to a nucleus hive established by raising some sealed brood, stores and bees above a double screen placed on top of the hive. If nothing else the removal of brood from the strong colony puts back the potential of the bees to swarm but there is more to it than that. He also established a new nucleus colony.
Without getting into the detail of his then using this new queen to establish a two-queen hive – a topic for the rather more experienced beekeeper – it is worth noting that this newly established nucleus colony can be used to simply requeen the parent colony. By simply shuffling the brood boxes, after taking the old queen out, he replaces the old queen with a new one in the process greatly reducing the incidence of swarming.
John W. Holzberlein: Swarm prevention – not swarm control
John Holzberlein was the American Beekeeping Federation president in 1945-1946.
In describing the natural propensity of bees to swarm, Holzberlein notes disarmingly:
Swarming is a natural instinct in bees but it has no place in modern honey production. Our great trouble foundation is in trying to curb the urge once it takes possession of a colony. It almost parallels the sheep killing urge that develops in some dogs. The only way to stop it is to destroy the dog. Once a colony makes a firm determination to swarm, gets to the point of having sealed queen cells, with the old queen shrunken up ready for her first venture since her honeymoon days into the wide, blue yonder, there is nothing much we can do about it except to destroy the colony as such.
Holzberlein identifies two effective cures for swarming:
…One is to swarm them, that is, some phase of dividing the old bees and queen from the young bees and brood. The other is to make the colony queenless and queen cell-less, causing it to raise a young queen from scratch.
Neither he concedes is feasible in the commercial operation as both are counterproductive to the building bees for the honey flow. His solution is found in a lesson that he learnt from the Nebraskan beekeeper Ralph Barnes, of Oaklands: ‘Divide or requeen’.
Holzberlein’s solution was to do both though, for the rank amateur beginner, it may prove rather challenging:
The kind of dividing I am going to tell you about has no part in making increase. The divide is made all under one cover. The ‘split’ or ‘divide’ is set up over a solid or screened inner cover with an entrance of its own, and given a young queen. It is the beginning of the two-queen system, but right now it is a divide and the best little swarm preventer that you ever tried. Aside from being almost sure-fire swarm prevention it has the added advantage of getting and holding more bees in the field force of the colony than one queen could possibly produce. It keeps them all coming to the same hive, yet divides them at a time when the desire to swarm is almost sure to take over if nothing is done…
Like Miller’s solution to controlling swarming, there are strong elements of the Demaree method, but it is intelligently applied and for the practiced beekeeper should not be too difficult to adopt.
C.S. Engle: Automatic Demareeing
Demareeing is an old old chestnutix and is little more than splitting a colony and doing it under the one roof. In this the queen and a single frame of brood are confined to a bottom brood chamber over which is placed an excluder while the remaining brood is lifted above a new empty super of combs and placed on top of the hive.
You will need to read Engle’s account to get a full gist of the nuanced application of this seemingly enigmatic technique. Like all Demaree plans it divides the hive and that stops the bees swarming.
Of particular note is Engle’s combining swarm control with requeening, a technique some of you may have come across in chatting to David Leehumis and Victor Croker at Australian Honeybee.
G.H. (Bud) Cale: Emergency swarm control
Bud Cale, the then editor of the American Bee Journal and a prime instigator of Swarming Round-up, provides a overview of the other author contributions noting, perhaps saliently, that all swarm control boils down to adopting emergency measures. Yet the contributions of the likes provided by John Holzberlein suggest that swarming should be anticipated. Proactive measures such as splitting all strong colonies will change the mood of bees and keep them in that active expansionist condition essential to building colonies needed to gather large amounts of honey.
Like anyone with a good grasp of the swarming impulse, Cale notes that:
The age of the queen has much to do with the amount of swarming because supersedure will be carried out at the same time swarming is usually imminent. The older queens therefore will be more involved in swarming than the young ones.
The main strategy that Cale floats, one highlighted in the wonderful The Hive and the Honey Beex, is to switch the location of strong and weak colonies, noting however that the strategy will only work if any started queen cells are first removed. It’s a strategy that would be unwise to adopt unless you first checked your bees for brood diseases but it is a simple practice to adopt when you have a paddock full of beehives in need of emergency swarm control.
………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………If you are serious about avoiding swarming and want to get lots of honey in this very propitious 2021-2022 bee season do stop this winter, light the fire and settle with half a bottle of red to absorb the wisdom of these very old and practiced hands.
iHaydak, M.H., Schaefer, H.A., Miller, E.S., Killion, C.E. and Killion, E., Newman, I.L., Holzberlein, J.W., Engle, C.S. and Cale, G.H. (May 1952). Swarming round-up. American Bee Journal 92(5):181, 189-198. https://archive.org/details/sim_american-bee-journal_1952-05_92_5/mode/2up
iiWade, A. (2016). Bee Buzz Box September 2016: A history of swarming in honey bees: Part I Biological basis of honey bee swarming.
Wade, A. (2016). Bee Buzz Box October 2016: Swarming in honey bees: Part II Swarming across the honey bee genus and non reproductive swarming.
iiiWade, A. (2018). Bee Buzz Box August 2018: Part I A simple swarm control guide. https://actbeekeepers.asn.au/wp-admin/post.php?post=2221&action=edit https://actbeekeepers.asn.au/bee-buzz-box-august-2018/?preview_id=2221&preview_nonce=a983ca449f&preview=true&_thumbnail_id=2226
Wade, A. (2018). Bee Buzz Box September 2018: Part II A simple swarm control guide. https://actbeekeepers.asn.au/wp-admin/post.php?post=2862&action=edit
ivWade, A. (2019). Bee Buzz Box September 2019: Building bees for the honey flow. https://actbeekeepers.asn.au/bee-buzz-box-august-2019-special-bonus-issue/?preview_id=6041&preview_nonce=4e30763f81&preview=true&_thumbnail_id=6521
Wade, A. (2019). Building bees for the honey flow presentation to Canberra Region Beekeepers September 2019.
vHaydak, M.H., Schaefer, H.A., Miller, E.S., Killion, C.E. and Killion, E., Newman, I.L., Holzberlein, J.W., Engle, C.S. and Cale, G.H. (May 1952). Swarming roundup. American Bee Journal 92(5):181, 189-198. https://archive.org/details/sim_american-bee-journal_1952-05_92_5/mode/2up
viRahmlow, H.J. (ed.) (September 1952/August 1953). Schaefer new beekeepers federation president. Wisconsin Horticulture 43:119. https://digicoll.library.wisc.edu/cgi-bin/WI/WI-idx?type=turn&id=WI.WIHortv43&entity=WI.WIHortv43.p0119&isize=text
viiMiller, E.S. (May 1943). Swarm prevention. American Bee Journal 83(5):194, 203. https://archive.org/details/sim_american-bee-journal_1943-05_83_5/page/194/mode/2up
viiiKillion, E.E. (1981). Honey in the Comb. Dadant & Sons Inc., Carthage, Illinois.
ixDemaree, G. (1892). How to prevent swarming. American Bee Journal 29(17):545-546.
xThe Hive and the Honey Bee, Dadant & Sons, Hamilton, Illinois.
Cale G.H. (May 1943). Relocation as a means of swarm control. American Bee Journal 83(5):190-191. https://archive.org/details/sim_american-bee-journal_1943-05_83_5/page/190/mode/2up